Jennifer Moxley’s excellent new memoir, The Middle Room (Subpress, 2007), spans the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Most of the book takes place in San Diego, with interludes in San Francisco, Seattle, Paris and Providence. Moxley recounts her apprenticeship as a poet while an undergraduate at UCSD, where she was lucky enough to meet fellow poets with whom she exchanged ideas and energy about writing. Because those years coincided with my own discovery of poetry while at boarding school outside Boston, many of the cultural references Moxley alludes to evoke vivid memories for me, albeit in a different context. I’ve also been obsessed recently with writing about and analyzing my own undergraduate years during the early to mid-1990s in Tampa, a time I continue to think of as a distinct cultural era with its own landmarks (for me, these included the deaths of Miles Davis, Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix, The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest, LSD (part II), Spiderland by Slint, Pavement at Ybor City’s Ritz Theater in the spring of 1994, acid jazz, the L.A. riots, and so forth).
Autobiography and poetry often seem to be intimately related, at least for some poets. I think much of the joy I find in these pages relates to watching a poet discuss her apprenticeship during a time and place that might at first seem completely averse to avant-garde poetics. Moxley’s formal and mannered prose seems to be ironically commenting on the city of San Diego in the 1980s, existing as it does in the postmodern California of shopping malls, freeways, mindless beaches, a type of antithesis to the chaos of nearby Mexico. But this massive book (over 600 pages) isn’t dismissive of San Diego. In the process of describing her family, friends and lovers, Moxley portrays the poet’s noble efforts to establish a tradition for herself. One of the writers Moxley mentions is Joyce, whose A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can surely be seen as an influence on her book. Moxley investigates how a poet comes into existence, the efforts required of the poet as she develops her being. Moxley also evokes Joyce by ending her narrative just as she has departed her home, moving to Providence and into further uncertainty.
There’s a beautiful moment in The Middle Room where Moxley describes an evening she spent at a dinner party in Fanny Howe’s home. Howe is among several poets, contemporaries and elders, who serve as guides for Moxley in her quest to live a life of poetry. And what exactly is that, anyways? How does poetry become a relevant energy in one’s daily existence? Moxley doesn’t try to answer these questions but instead explores the circuitous routes one can take en route to becoming a poet. She describes the way Howe’s bookshelves that evening inspired her to take literature seriously, to devote herself in earnest to the accumulation and production of knowledge:
“... I wandered into the living room and perused the books in the bookshelves. Never had I seen so many. Misty with thoughts of parallel worlds and forces beyond the grips of man, I became intoxicated by the thought of reading every one of these numerous volumes. Surely the transitory moments of human consciousness were folded into these pages, each awaiting, like those sponges that expand to many times their size, the unfolding solution of the reader’s eye!” (554)
In 1951 Stephen Spender wrote his masterpiece, the memoir World within World, which tells his friendships with Auden, Isherwood, Upward and his early success as a politically engaged poet in the 1930s. In writing his autobiography at such a young age, Spender created a book that spoke about poetry in a manner that was, in itself, poetry. Likewise, Moxley has written an autobiography at an early age, offering a rich glimpse into her own poetic scaffolding. What is often most alluring about The Middle Room is that Moxley’s poetry is never really discussed too much. Instead, she focuses on describing her friends, family, lovers, professors, travels, discoveries and sorrows. The implication being that poetry exists in our daily, often mundane, experiences – such as her own work as a bookseller in several B Dalton stores.
On various occasions, Moxley writes about the enticement of autobiographical writing, how journals represent a realm of pleasure and productive solitude. Joyce’s masterful novel, after all, ends with several journal entries by the young writer as he prepares to abandon Dublin and step into the world beyond, into art. One imagines those early journals Moxley describes herself writing must have served as material for some of the contents of this book, thus giving the reader a sense of privileged entry into the poet’s life:
“The beginning of fall quarter was still over a month away and, while I indulged in fantasies of dropping out of college and returning to Paris, I was actually very anxious to return to reading, writing and thinking. My “winter feeling” had come upon me and I felt harassed by the restless dry heat of summer. I wanted nothing more than that incomparable feeling you get when, with a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit nearby, you open to the page of a crisp new journal, pick up your pen and begin to write.” (214-215)